Milwaukee — Grape-Nuts in New England. Blue Moon in Wisconsin. Red bean in Hawaii. Date in Palm Springs.
Vanilla and chocolate may rule America's collective palate when it comes to ice cream, but regional - some would say unusual - variations nevertheless thrive throughout the country.
These are ice creams loved as much for their familiarity as for their exotic taste. It's a comfort food thing. Breakfast cereals and beans may seem odd additions, but for the right people they provide ties to regional or ethnic flavors from childhood.
Which is why when Roger Gifford and his brother, John, began making ice cream at their family's Skowhegan, Maine, dairy in 1980, they turned to decades-old recipes saved from their grandparents' ice cream business in Connecticut.
One of their original flavors, Grape-Nuts, ranks behind only vanilla and chocolate in supermarket sales for the company, says Mike Brandt, sales and marketing director for Gifford's Ice Cream.
"Grape-Nut is a phenomenon," he says.
Many people combine it with another New England staple, drizzling warm maple syrup over ice cream.
"It is a northern New England traditional flavor," Brandt says. "You won't see that outside of northern New England."
People begin to develop their ice cream preferences early in childhood, often associating their favorite flavor with positive experiences, says John Nihoff, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
"Ice cream gets set up as a reward for kids," he says. "'You did well on your report card, so let's take you for ice cream."'
Blue Moon madness
Which may explain the popularity of Blue Moon ice cream in Wisconsin and Michigan, where it is made by several small dairies. The bright blue ice cream with a taste reminiscent of Froot Loops breakfast cereal was created in Milwaukee around 1950, says Andrew Plennert, owner of Chicago's Edgar A. Weber & Co., which now owns the formula.
Ann Filip, 45, of New Lenox, Ill., says she and her family discovered it during a stay at the Kalahari Resort in the Wisconsin Dells. She and her husband already were fans of Superman, another brightly colored ice cream with a hard-to-define taste.
"So Blue Moon was just cool," Filip says.
Fourteen years later, her family doesn't have time for long vacations at the resort, but they'll drive three to four hours, have some ice cream and come home.
"My husband's just a fanatic on that Blue Moon ice cream," she says.
Many adults who grew up with it still love it, making it a top seller not only in the region, but also on Internet ice cream dealer IceCreamSource.com.
"It's a very Midwestern flavor, and why it's so popular with us is that you can't find it anywhere else," says Steve Sauter, founder of IceCreamSource.com.
His company's top seller is black licorice, a popular flavor from the 1930s and 1940s. Many orders come from senior citizens who remember it from their younger days, Sauter says.
Lappert's Ice Cream, of Richmond, Calif., makes red bean ice cream with the azuki beans used in Asian cuisine. It sells well in Hawaii, where Asian influence is strong, "but you can't give it away on the mainland," says sales manager Bob Marker.
Ray Ford, who owns Christina's Homemade Ice Cream in Cambridge, Mass., has had success with Asian flavors such as green tea, ginger and red bean, as well as Hispanic-influenced varieties, such as ancho chili (it's a mild heat).
Specialty flavors often develop from food already found in a particular area.
Mike Lappert, who owns Richmond, Calif.-based Lappert's Ice Cream, says he hadn't considered making date ice cream until he opened a new shop this year in Palm Springs, Calif.
"I had never heard a request for date ice cream, but all the sudden, we were getting requests for date milkshakes," he says, "so we started making them and throwing some dates in."
Now his company makes date ice cream that it sells only in Palm Springs.
Many Northwest berries, such as loganberry and boysenberry, have a similar limited appeal, Lappert says. When he goes to Seattle, he finds a number of desserts made with huckleberry, but he wouldn't try to make that into an ice cream.
"Nobody would even buy it, nobody would even know what it is," he says.
Nihoff, the culinary instructor, says people usually eat foods that are affordable and accessible wherever they grow up. And as they age, they tend to favor those foods and flavors, even if they have moved.
Brandt keeps that principle in mind when looking for new flavors for Gifford's. For example, Gifford's whoopie pie ice cream incorporates the inexpensive cream-filled cake sandwiches found in bakeries and convenience stores throughout Maine.
"When I go to a food show, and I walk the floor, I'll be looking for ingredients that work in ice cream and that resonate with the consumer in some way already," he says. "When you come up to the state of Maine, whoopie pies are everywhere."
The local flavor principle also has paid off for Gary Dowling, owner of Dakota's Best in Rapid City, S.D. In 2003, he took two of his state's most popular products - sunflowers and honey - and had them mixed in an ice cream made for his store.
"It has that little salty taste with sunflower seeds, and then it's sweet with honey," says Laurie Durr, co-owner of Fjord's Ice Cream Factory, which makes the ice cream for Dowling.
Honey Sunflower Vanilla has become his top-selling flavor. "During the summer, it's hard to even keep in stock," Dowling says.
Avocado ice cream
3 medium ripe Hass avocados (about 1 1/2 pounds)
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Big pinch salt
Slice the avocados in half and remove the pits. Use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, then cut it into chunks.
In a food processor or blender, combine the avocados, sugar, sour cream, heavy cream, lime juice and salt. Puree until smooth and the sugar is dissolved.
Freeze immediately in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Start to finish: About one hour. Makes about 1 quart.
Grape-nuts ice cream
3 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup Grape-Nuts breakfast cereal
Maple syrup, to serve
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup of the cream, the sugar, salt and cinnamon. Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the remaining cream and the vanilla extract. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until well chilled, about 6 hours.
Process the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. When the mixture has just begun to thicken, about a third of the way through churning, add the cereal and continue processing.
To serve, drizzle with warm maple syrup.
Start to finish: About seven hours. Makes about 1 quart.
- Recipes from David Lebovitz' "The Perfect Scoop"